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September 27, 2023

The Road to Work/Life Nirvana (Hint, Don’t Take the Technology Exit)

“Hahaha … Dad, you were working all the time … we never saw you. Why would I want to do that?”

It’s a sad day when buzzing in with “What is a CPA?” will win you $400 based on my daughter’s comment.

Worse, her remarks aren’t grounded in laziness. She’s graduating college this spring with honors; slammed with multiple projects and loving it. What’s the difference?? Simple … her work is fulfilling. It feeds her spirit; it doesn’t drain it.

Can we CPAs say the same? CPAs today universally share one common condition: we are overwhelmed by systems which kick out volumes of low value work that swallow us whole. Whether you’re in audit, management accounting, tax, financial planning or managing a practice … it doesn’t matter. It’s the painful truth. We are increasingly isolated, frustrated, and disconnected from beliefs that first attracted us all to this profession. So how on earth did we get here? In part, by worshiping one false idol for the last four decades … technology.

Yep, technology. What was once our servant has now become the master. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a new age Luddite. I completely understand the need and use for it. What I’ve never understood is the perpetual attitude that technology will deliver CPAs to the promised land of work/life nirvana. Colleagues walk around flashing tight smiles, but inside they’re wiped out.

Year after year the same common buzzwords bubble up:

“transformative technology,”

“dynamic changes,”

“a real time saver”

Meanwhile dedicated CPAs from every corner of this country and plenty of places in between will secretly tell you that our misery index is at an all-time high. COVID and the endless reporting season have tightened our stress screws to the breaking point. We’ve traded the commute for being on-call. Loved ones now witness the mental breakdowns first-hand.

Here are some other stone hard truths …

  • Technology was a money maker for CPAs in the early going. Deliverables like tax returns and bound financial statements had their own inherent value. A business or individual would be hard pressed to create these on their own.
  • Early software made CPAs look like superstars. Tax returns processed overnight? You bet! Financial statement changes made on word processing software? Poof, done. Hardware and software from the late ’80s and early ’90s provided us with magic wands that only we held.
  • QuickBooks, Peachtree, TurboTax … then came the advent of client direct software. “They’ll always need a CPA” … “those are only for the easiest tax returns” … “that’s not our typical client”. Hubris.

What’s next?

  • 5G Technology will usher in the “creative destruction” of professional services. We saw the same dynamic with robots impacting manufacturers, and online shopping & delivery revolutionize retail. Now it’s our turn.
  • LegalZoom, WebDoctors, and TurboTax Live … it’s already here and will continue to bloom.
  • Full service providers operating with unmatched resources and scale will come to the marketplace looking to become the next Amazon. It won’t be long before a few large players coalesce, emerge and redefine our profession.
  • Intuit’s stock growth over the past 5 years is over 296% (3x the growth of U.S. large cap stock). TurboTax Live customers grew by 70% last year.

This is happening faster than you think, the momentum is there. We’re talking survival and if all of our efforts center on this chase for shiny new technology to scrape market share, then kiss any chance of work/life balance goodbye. You’ll only be doing more of the same for less money to simply keep up with the Bezos.

Enough of the pity party, time for solutions. Here’s one, and it’s based on a single fundamental question: What unique value can you as a CPA provide to either your clients or your colleagues in today’s world?

Whether you are in public accounting or industry, you should be asking this fundamental question and coming up with an answer.

I’ve been in the compliance/planning tax world for 30-plus years. My answer? My clients can genuinely confide in me. I will listen to their fears, understand their world, and truly help them using my knowledge, empathy and grit.

Understand that …

… your client isn’t paying your fee because you can store her tax return on the cloud. The tech giants in their race to the bottom will give that away. The reason she is paying you is because she can’t sleep ever since her daughter is engaged to a jerk and is now reluctant to leave the family business to her daughter outright. She needs your help.

… the board of directors isn’t entrusting you with leading the audit committee because of your whiz bang knowledge of leasing standards. They put you there because they trust in you, because you speak the truth, and always do what’s right. They need your help.

I’ve yet to see an app that can do that.

Whether you are the CFO or an employee, a partner or a staff accountant, it takes honesty, risk and guts to stick your neck out and care. That’s called value and it has and always will pay well.

Strangely enough, the pandemic with all its horror and interruption has provided us with a unique opportunity for a collective reset. Disruption reveals sightlines that were previously blocked and provides us with new opportunities. There is no going back to a carbon copy of what was.

This includes our unrequited love affair with tech … a sexy mistress full of promise but in the morning light it’s SALY dressed in drag breaking our heart.

Pivot toward value. Happiness, more $$$, and a stable tomorrow … that’s hard to beat.

Otherwise, up next … Final Jeopardy.

About the author:

Frank Castillo is author of over 250 continuing professional education courses across various fields of study including accounting, taxation, regulatory ethics, economics, technology, and finance. He is also a provider of “Personal CFO” services to high net worth individuals, including executives, entrepreneurs, professional athletes, and performing artists. Find him on LinkedIn or reach out via email.

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